The Wired Life

Old vs New

I agree with much of what Rochelle says about Wikipedia, but I’m troubled by the way that she mischaracterizes the “old way” for rhetorical effect. She says the “basic principle” she’s gleaned is that “for a source to be creditable, we want it to pass through the hands of a third-party, for-profit company.”  She throws a bone or two to objectivity – “Not to say there isn’t some validity to the old rules…” But it’s no more than a gloss. The “old rules” are run by the “Old Boys” and pretty soon she’s mixed it all down to “theirs” (Encyclopedia Brittanica) and “ours” (Wikipedia). “In the traditional world… we want to know if the University of Smart Folks has endorsed this… we want to see the Mensa membership cards…” Nice dripping sarcasm there, but not much substance. The rhetoric is useful only if you’re eager to divide things up neatly into “us” and “them”.

The reality is far muddier. In the “old world” reputable companies (many of them not-for-profit – think “university presses”) go to elaborate lengths to try to assure accuracy.  Armies of fact-checkers and legions of editors review textbooks and reference works. To suggest that reference works are just thrown together by an editor and accepted because they’re written by “the Old Boys” is a caricature that bears little useful resemblance to the work that actually goes into preparing traditional reference works. Are some publishers better than others? Of course. Do errors creep through? Of course. Is there fraud, deceit, sloppiness and venality at play, right alongside excellence, dedication and sheer brilliance? Of course -- we're dealing with human beings, aren’t we?

 She’s better when she goes on to say that “Wikipedia is the best example we have of pure peer review.” If one has a sufficient critical mass of participants, it seems to me that the likelihood of being truly self-correcting is high.  There’s still no guarantee that it’s going to be error-free, but a more open and transparent review process is surely an improvement (as many of the Old Boys have argued for years).  Well-designed wikis can resolve many of the limitations of the traditional print-bound review processes.

 She ends her piece with a statement that I wholeheartedly agree with: “We just have to give people the tools to think critically, to ask questions of the sources that we help them find.” But this isn’t a new principle. This is librarianship as I’ve been practicing it for twenty years. I was trained to approach all reference works, all sources, with a high degree of scepticism, and never to accept the authority of a source uncritically.

Nonetheless, I do not think she is mistaken when she suggests that too many of our colleagues are like “the 19th century matrons who tell people what’s good for them and keep the stuff that will rot their brains out of the library…”  But this isn’t about the "old way” and the “new way”. It shouldn’t be “us” and “them,” “theirs” and “ours” – it’s the ever-evolving, messy struggle towards better tools and better ways of developing knowledge. The great librarians of the past century have approached their work with exactly the kind of critical passion that Rochelle exemplifies, but they've had to work right alongside those who are just looking for their comfort zone.  Wikipedia isn't going to change that fact of human nature.

 Let me be very clear: I think that wikis have the potential to substantially transform the way we produce reference tools, and I’m personally much more likely to consult Wikipedia than a traditional encyclopedia these days. But, despite Rochelle's exhortations, I see too many eager librarians uncritically embracing Wikipedia and other technological advances as panaceas, and they are betraying their professional principles every bit as much as those who never thought to question the authority of an Encyclopedia Brittanica article.










Issues of editorial quality and appropriate (i.e. scholarly) and inappropriate (i.e. pharmaceutical company) influence over content aside, the thing that intrigues me most at this moment about the publishing industry versus communities like Wikipedia is how quickly the latter can organize content around a topic.

Especially in this era of extreme spin on all sides of debate, it's at least somewhat comforting to know that I can look up Supreme Court nominee John Roberts in Wikipedia and get some information about not only his history, but his record on issues, however edited, *the day his nomination was announced*.

While there are lots of other sources of information about Roberts, the Old Boys will likely be much slower to write about him. The BBC says this morning that the press knows little to nothing about his record, yet. Sen. Patrick Leahy said on NPR this morning that neither does the Senate.

In the meantime, if I want to learn about this guy's record today, I'll start with Wikipedia. Doesn't mean I'll treat everything they say as gospel, but it's a starting point.

T Scott

One of the great advantages of Wikipedia is, indeed, the speed with which information can be built. But why assume that there aren't "old boys" among the Wikipedia contributors? Unless you're simply defining "old boys" as traditional print media (of which, I would add, there is increasingly little left)?


I'd argue that the sheer diversity of the Wikipedia community (on any given topic) is one of its major advantages. Having heard how editorial authority/control of a sort is established in the community (on some podcast I was listening to while mowing the lawn last weekend), I was intrigued by the notion that the idea is for posters to reach agreement on what they can, rather than arguing endlessly about what they can't.

Regarding old boys, I really meant 'established channels of dissemination', whatever their format--print, online, and broadcast sources should all be handled as skeptically as Wikipedia, as you point out. Yes, 'old boys' may contribute to Wikipedia, but my optimistic side says that an entry could rise above anyone trying to throw around weight, or spin. Guess it depends partly on who does contribute, but also on the tenor of the wikiflow (i.e. how the threads all blend into an entry).

Wikipedia has promise to show us how to behave respectfully toward others, which is just as lacking today as 'definitive' or 'objective' information on many subjects.

T Scott

I absolutely agree that the diversity of the community is the real strength. The broader the diversity, the better. Wikipedia might "show us how to behave respectfully toward other" but it'll take more than another "showing" to actually change human behavior.


Certainly true, though I think 'think globally, act locally' applies here.

I'm sure that Lynn and others would agree with me on a point I've learned from child-rearing: modeling a behavior is one way to influence others to practice said behavior. Not the only way, but a start, at least.

If those we respect remind us how to strive for enlightenment, say, by publishing a 'what I'm reading' sidebar on their blog, or recounting how one rehearses in one's home studio, that's a little bit that helps.

Mark Danderson

As a representative of one of the “old boys” I would actually take issue with some of the assumptions made in this discussion about Wikipedia and the review process.

Regarding timeliness, “SG” speaks of immediate information on Roberts as a virtue or even desirable. What we “old boys” have known for years is that there is a tradeoff between accuracy and timeliness. The London bombing earlier in the month proves my point. In the first few hours after the bombing the press reported that it was 1) a power surge and not terrorism, 2) it was a series of bombings over a period of time; 3) these were timed bombs and the perpetrators were at large. All of these assertions were immediate and inaccurate. Did we, society at large, gain anything from learning these erroneous assertions quickly? In my view, immediacy is overrated. I will spend the next few months studiously learning about Roberts. I have purposely refused to read any of the early reports about his career.

In my view studiousness and deliberation are far more valuable then immediacy. As an American who has lived many years abroad I have come to realize that this fixation on immediacy, is an American pathology. To me, it is the most disturbing thing about the internet, it reinforces some of America’s most undesirable traits. I have a joke that I always tell to Europeans – “the problem with the internet is that it was invented and is run by Americans.” When I tell that joke, Europeans immediately understand what I mean, no further explanation is needed. Americans never get it.

As for the peer review process; I would assert that a genuine peer review cannot take place in a public forum. Like clinical trials, blinding the peer review process is critical to insuring accuracy and elimination of bias. Wikipedia content is not peer reviewed, it merely provides a forum for a diversity of opinion. The two are not one and the same. To say that a multiplicity of opinion = peer review would be to assert that congressional deliberations are a form of peer review. Surely that is not the case. Peer review isn’t about diversity of opinion it is a system designed to check accuracy of data and conclusions in academic endeavors.

All this is not to say that I think Wikipedia is bad. It isn’t, it serves a purpose. It just is not a source that I, personally, would ever cite. To me, it is a fun sometimes interesting forum. But I would never depend on it as an accurate source of information.

T Scott

Mark provides a useful analysis, much of which I agree with. I would point out, however, that there is considerable debate, even within the "old boy" network about the best way to handle peer review. There are many who argue that non-blinded peer review is actually to be preferred, and the studies that have been done so far (generally reported at the JAMA-sponsored international peer review conferences), while inconclusive, have not provided any evidence that blinding vs non-blinding provides better peer review.

More important to me in the long run are Mark's comments about the difference between opinion and accuracy. The question about the wikipedia process is whether its results really do provide a self-correcting mechanism for achieving accuracy, or if it simply is a matter of the majority opinion deciding what's right. If it's the former, it represents an advance in peer review; if the latter, then it is potentially dangerous. Personally, I think that, under the right conditions, it can be the former, but the evidence is not in yet.


It's an interesting discussion once again on the blog, but by now I expect nothing less.

Although people are over-selling the virtues of Wikipedia, this is what we do with any hot new idea. Scott is right that the evidence for its usefulness will emerge over time. My own behavior is to consult it as a first choice, and then go to the traditional sources if the topic is important enough.

Although librarians are supposed to regard traditional sources critically, I wonder how often this happens in practice. Side by side with learning the importance of critical evaluation, librarians learn a formulaic approach to determing worth: check the publisher; when was it last updated; etc. Although an exceptional librarian would read through the new Encyclopedia Britannica articles, almost all librarians would trust that it was good simply because it's Britannica.


As to immediacy versus deliberation: quite frankly, living in the current U.S. political climate and atmosphere, if one is to stay on top of what's *really* happening, many here argue that one must gather what one can immediately, before information is buried/edited/covered up by those who disseminate it and the forces they serve. May sound draconian, and may not be optimal, but it's where we are now.

There's simply not always time to be deliberate, and sources like Wikipedia help greatly not only because they're so immediate, but also because one may see prior entries--there's a trail that the average person doesn't get to see with a truly peer-reviewed object (or often, media reports, though the BBC's and others' links to past stories are great).

Rather than hesitating a moment to learn about John Roberts, I turned to Wikipedia to see a fuller account of his record than I could find anywhere else. I feel like I can count on Wikipedia as a first resource better, at least these days, than I can on the vast majority of media outlets in this country (many complain even about NPR, which I think only goes halfway to being public radio, though you have to forgive them as Ken Tomlinson's breathing down their necks on a daily basis).

I think the history of this country since November, 2000 screams that 'he who hesitates is lost'. I think that that applies to the whole damned country, on countless issues in the last few years.

And got that from The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition.

Is that peer-reviewed enough for you, Mark?

Mark Danderson

SG, I have learned just the opposite lesson from the past five years. As Iraq, Guantanamo, etc... have proven over and over again. The truth is never revealed immedaitely. The immediate information (from both sides) in all these issues has usually proved to be incorrect.

It was only through a hard long slog that the truth has been slowly revealed on all these issues. Usually, the first news out on a subject is spin. As for Roberts, I think my deliberative wait and see approach has proven to be the better course of action.

It was only after hard working reporters went to the Reagan Library and searched through the archives there that we learned Roberts (at a very young age) went toe to toe with Olsen in the Reagan White House. What did we learn from this? Roberts certainly has conviction, he is certainly brave (maybe even to the point of being foolish), and he takes a very strict constructionist view of the US Constitution and the powers of congress to limit the executive, however he tempers that conviction with political realism.

What does that tell us about his position on the Supreme Court? Well it is a double edged sword, I think. He is most certainly in the Scalia/Thompson camp. However, his views may come back to haunt the Bushies. My deepest concern about him though is that he tempers his opinion to political reality. That worked to the libertarian advantage in the 80's. That tempermant however may cause him to lean toward the hard line camp in the 00s.

Mark Danderson

SG, by the way, your comments caused me to go to Wikipedia and read what they had to say about John Roberts. Actually, they have an impressive amount of information about him. I found it really interesting and useful. And I was very gratified to see that they included commentary concerning his opinions on Madbury v Madison. Most Americans don't realize this, but the real battle being waged in this country isn't Roe v Wade, or Brown - those are side issues.

The real issue revolves around Madbury v Madison. The neo-Jefersonians (the far right Republicans) don't care about Roe v Wade. That is a smoke screen, they seek to overturn Madbury v Madison. Madbury v Madison is the very foundation of the interpretation of the modern American Republic. It is for this reason that I hold the position that the Republicans no longer believe in the American Republic.

The fact that Wikipedia discusses this issue in a Roberts piece increases my perception of Wikipedia. Just one question though. How can I be sure that Wikipedia has written an accurate account? There is no editing and fact checking process. Who wrote this piece? How do I know that the writer is telling the truth?


As to the issue of 'first coverage being spin', it strongly depends on from whom you get your news these days. I think you also point out an important distinction between reporters, at least some of whom in this country, Judith Miller and her ilk aside, are still willing to get the 'truth' (though what is that, anyway?), and commentators whose job is to persuade. The question I have about many reporters anymore is, 'do they have the guts to go after the real story, even after their conglomerate masters toe the line?'

As to editorial process, think a bit outside the box. There's clearly a leap of faith you have to make with Wikipedia. From what I've read of their policies, etc., the goal is to make every effort to document subjects without bias, and with respect to alternative points of view.

But as we've both said, you'd turn to Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica in different situations, and for different purposes. Neither is perfect in every case, but both must be respected for what they are, and in Wikipedia's case, what it could become.


One further thought on editorial rigor. I've long been intrigued by the idea that pervades the open source culture and community that 'given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow'.

Because Wikipedia is built by a growing community of individuals, and based on a consensus model, it might share a bit of open source flavor. In theory, anyway, if a renegade adds something biased or on which consensus may not be reached in a Wikipedia entry, then that person's stuff doesn't stay in that entry. A bit of a 'neighborhood watch' concept, I suppose, the idea being that those who contribute to an entry are part of that entry's community, and are somehow committed or connected to the content.

And if one has the audacity to add/modify a Wikipedia entry, I certainly hope they know what they're talking about, or at least others interested in their subject don't think that they don't!

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